The Federal Aviation Administration’s reauthorization bill has stalled in Congress, with the House and the Senate unable to agree on competing versions. The result is that the FAA is in partial shutdown mode with employees on furlough and many construction projects at airports on hold.
There are several disputed provisions in the FAA legislation, but organized labor is arguing that the real reason for the holdup is a dispute over “workers’ rights.” By what stretch of reasoning do they reach this conclusion? This requires a bit of explanation.
In 2009, a government agency known as the National Mediation Board (NMB), which oversees union elections in the airline and railroad industries, received two new political appointees to its three member board. These two just happened to be former airline union presidents and they had a distinct agenda. One of the new majority’s first acts was to throw out election rules that had worked successfully for 75 years — primarily because under these rules, unions had been unable to win elections among workers at Delta Air Lines.
Under the now-discarded rules, unions needed a majority of all workers in a bargaining unit to vote “yes” to win an election, meaning that workers who did not participate were counted as “no” votes. Under the new rules, unions only need to win a majority of those who actually vote. Unions claim that the new rules are far more democratic because, after all, this is how we elect members of Congress.
Except for one thing. Members of Congress can be fired if voters no longer support them. Not so under the NMB’s voting rules — once a union gets in it is almost impossible for workers to get rid of it. This was the case under the previous voting rules, but when designing a new election regime, the new members of the NMB somehow left that provision in place. Hardly democratic, unless one wished to model the type of democracy practiced in the seedier corners of the world.
In fact, the previous voting system provided balance — a high bar for entry and a high bar for exit. Now that balance has been destroyed. To restore a fair system, House Republicans included a provision in the FAA bill that would have voided the new rules. The Democratic-controlled Senate has, unsurprisingly, not followed suit.
Which gets us to Delta. Under the old rules, workers repeatedly rejected unions. So the new political appointees at the NMB changed the rules. And guess what? Workers at Delta still rejected the unions in five separate elections. Now the NMB has decided to investigate trumped up union charges of “employer interference” and may order yet another round of elections.
If worker rights and democracy are paramount, at what point will unions and their allies at the NMB recognize workers’ right to say “no?” And with regard to the FAA bill, is it really a fight over “workers’ rights,” or are unions — and the Senate — trying to protect a new, and very undemocratic, set of election rules?
There are many issues at play in the FAA bill. But there’s no need to clutter up the discussion by pretending that the impasse has anything to do with the Senate protecting democracy in the workplace.